Patten pushes through Hong Kong court deal with Peking

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The most serious challenge to a Sino-British agreement on the future of Hong Kong was defeated yesterday when the colony's legislators backed away from their threat to torpedo it.

Legislators had been angered by a deal to establish a court of final appeal to replace the Privy Council after the 1997 Chinese takeover. Chris Patten, the Governor, personally lobbied wavering members of the Legislative Council before yesterday's marathon debate, describing the vote as the major test of his administration.

On the eve of the debate he said that if the agreement was voted down, "all bets would be off and the only certainty facing us would be a judicial vacuum in Hong Kong after 1997".

Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party and the most vocal opponent of the Sino-British agreement, accused the government of intimidation and employing "shameful tactics" to secure the deal.

Opponents were angered by a clause which allows ''acts of state'' to be removed from the new court's jurisdiction, permitting such largely undefined acts to be judged by politicians in Peking. Second, they objected to the establishment of the court on 1 July 1997, the day China takes over the territory, arguing that this undermined its prospects of establishing a more independent status. Third, there was concern over the agreement to allow only one overseas judge to sit on the court's bench, a provision which appears to contradict the 1984 Sino-British agreement on the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty which stipulated that the new court could "as required invite judges from other common-law jurisdictions to sit on the court of final appeal".

Opponents of the government say that the reference to judges in the plural is a clear indication that it was never intended to allow only one foreign judge to sit on the bench. Yesterday that issue posed the most serious challenge to the agreement's passage as councillors from the Liberal Party, the biggest group in the chamber, threatened to block it.

However the majority of party members, most of whom are part of the old colonial elite sitting in the legislature thanks to appointment by the Governor, broke ranks and voted with the government. Their leader, Allen Lee, fresh from a visit to Peking, gave an early indication of the party's about-face when he said that they would vote with the government because "having an agreement is better than having no agreement".